Designing Organizations that Learn:
An Executive Guide to Learning

This article was first published in Chinmaya Management Review. For information about CMR, please contact

Prasad Kaipa, Ph. D., The Mithya Institute for Learning


In this information age, where knowledge creation and knowledge management are becoming increasingly important, understanding how we learn becomes critical. In the first part of this article, I discuss various elements of the learning process: the dimensions of learning and their interrelationships, the learner and the content, and normal versus breakthrough learning. In the second part, I address the process of learning. I propose a framework, a "learning cycle," that integrates aspects common to many previous learning theories. The third part of this article describes a practical set of steps for designing organizations that learn. It includes examples from business organizations.

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What is Learning?

''A new meaning of education and learning is bursting on the scene in America. Education for earlier economies was front-ended. When America was an agrarian economy, education for young people between seven and fourteen was sufficient to last the forty years of a working life. In the industrial economy, the age range of students expanded to between five and twenty-two. In the information economy, the rapid pace of technological change means that education must be updated throughout our working lives. People have to increase their learning power to sustain their earning power. Lifelong learning is the norm that is augmenting and in some cases displacing school-age education.'' ---(Stan Davis and Jim Botkin 1995)

The challenges of the information age are too rapid for incremental change. People who are successful in the new millennium, who can anticipate change in order to survive and flourish, will be those who ''understand the anthropology of our times, how human beings make judgments and come to decisions today,''according to Patricia Gallup, the president of a fast growing technology Mail-order company. As individuals, groups, organizations, and communities, make these judgments and come to decisions about their future, I believe this means learning in a new, powerful way.

An enlightened leaders' role in this knowledge age is to encourage people to think from their heads, feel from their hearts, work with their body, and integrate their spirit in their day-to-day work. While it looks simple, an integral approach to designing organizations with focus on people in addition to business strategy and short term results has the potential to increase the intellectual capital of the organization, tap into the intrinsic motivation of the employees, allow a sense of fulfillment in work, and truly develop an organizational spirit conducive to competitive advantage. The key to knowledge age is learning.

But what is learning? In 1988, I did an unscientific poll and asked 212 people from different walks of life that simple question--and I received 176 answers. While many of the answers were variations on a theme, four aspects of learning stood out, along with a strong mention by Indian spiritual teachers of a process of unlearning, defined as the letting go of unworkable values, assumptions, and beliefs that block our development. (But we'll return to unlearning later.) These were the acquisition or development of knowledge, skills, competence, and capacity.

Acquisition of knowledge---facts, data, and information ---was first on the list of many responses. Knowledge here mostly refers to knowledge about something. It is also referred to as 'objective knowledge' (because it remains the same and is independent of person, place, or time)--to be contrasted with many spiritual traditions that identify self-knowledge as the true knowledge. This kind of knowledge is called 'subjective knowledge' because it is generally thought to be independently unverifiable. Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus interviewed 90 of the Fortune 500 leaders in 80s about the personal qualities leaders needed to run their organizations and found that those leaders talked about learning and self knowledge.(Bennis and Nanus, 1985)

Next, being enabled to do something--in other words, learning a skill--was also high on the list of answers I received, while for others, real learning was not 'true' learning until there was a 'feeling' of confidence or competence. Competence is not a skill or knowledge or potential. Competence has more to do with attitude and feeling and the ability to get a job done and it is not easily measurable. "Competency combines knowledge, skill, potential, and personality traits in an integrated way to carry out a complex mission," according to Robert Aubrey (1996). Competencies can be knowledge-based or skill-based and each type of competency has its own set of learning contexts.

For example, cognitive competency gives a person the ability to understand in the context of school and studies. Process competency is about carrying out operations in training, factories, and in coaching contexts. When people feel competent, they can bring their acquired skills and knowledge to bear in getting a job done right now, when it needs to be done. If they do not feel competent, then the job does not get done! Donald Michael identifies 'the new competence' of successful leaders as follows:

  1. Acknowledging and sharing uncertainty
  2. Embracing error
  3. Responding to the future
  4. Becoming interpersonally competent (i.e. listening, nurturing, coping with value conflicts etc.)
  5. Gaining self-knowledge (Donald Michael, 1982)

Finally, beyond feeling knowledgeable, skillful, or competent, there is a unifying aspect of learning (the fourth category) called capacity that goes beyond these individual components. Capacity is altogether different from competence and when one has capacity one is capable. For example, while companies want to hire competent people, they cannot bring in people from the outside to increase the capacity of the company. It has to be developed internally. Companies are constantly working on developing leadership capacity, reflective capacity, and thinking capacity in their employees. Capacity could also be thought of as creative capability. While competence is about the implementation of already developed skills and knowledge, capacity allows for new skills and knowledge to be identified and acquired. In other words, capacity does not exist as an empty cup waiting to be filled. It shapes the capability of an individual, team, or organization to identify new, previously unrecognized opportunities for you and your company. And it is paradigm-shifting in nature because a person has to 'unlearn' the old beliefs and patterns before she can increase her capacity. In the process of stretching beyond one's 'known' limits, one discovers new untapped capacities in oneself. While competence is about creating something in the present, the capacity is about creating the future. The process of discovering new capacity and letting go of old limits is the unlearning process.

Thus, knowledge and skills are the explicit and most talked about components of learning, while competence and capacity are subtle or implicit components that integrate, even drive, the other two. Gaining knowledge and acquiring skills may result in degrees, certificates and experience, but feeling competent and developing capacity tap into the heart and spirit of who we are and both capacity and competence cannot be easily assessed using objective measures.


Integrating learning: Past, Present, and Future

However, learning is not merely the isolated acquisition of knowledge, skills, competence, or capacity but an integrated process with explicit and tacit dimensions in the individual and collective domains. To understand why this is so, we need to better understand not just the results of learning, but the learning process itself. You can also understand the learning process by learning about theories (Phillips, D.C. and J.F. Soltis 1985), or by understanding the recent research on brain and learning (Leslie A. Hart, 1983), or by appreciating how psychologists perceive learning.

Imagine you want to learn to paint. You could begin by reading a lot of books on painting and soon master what all the books on painting have said about painting: including such technical details as the proper use of brush, paints, canvas etc. This however does not enable you to be become a painter and you cannot say you have learned painting. Also, at times, your knowledge might even become an impediment. I know of a friend who has been flying airplanes for over 10 years. He recently got married and his wife wanted to learn to fly gliders--planes without engines, They both attended classes together to learn to fly gliders and the husband frequently corrected and helped the wife to understand the concepts behind flying. Surprisingly, though, the wife mastered flying gliders faster than the husband because he had a lot of unlearning to do. His long flying experience with planes hindered his ability to sense the air currents that gliders require.

Thus, discussion about the kind of organizational culture that develops competencies and capacity as well as skills and knowledge is crucial. In a turbulent and unpredictable environment like the present times, being "adaptive" to the market place changes is not good enough. Managers need to focus on imagining and creating new industries, not just the improvement of existing business. If they develop competencies without integrating and building synergy between them, though they are delivering what customers need right now, it will be a short-term solution. It is the development of new capacity, the untapped potential of a new idea, that becomes a product with a bright future and builds intellectual capital for the company.

In short, knowledge and skills create the foundation of a company, competence allows for it to be successful in the short term, and a developing capacity will permit growth in the future.

Figure 1: The four components of learning are knowledge, skills, competence and capacity. Knowledge and skills are about what we have already learned, competence is about the present moment and the capacity is about creating the future.


'Normal' vs. 'Breakthrough' learning

''The ascent of man does not lie in accumulated knowledgeÉScientists and others have said man can only evolve by having more and more knowledge, climbing, ascending. But knowledge is always the past; and if there is no freedom from the past, his ascent will be always limited. It will always be confined to a particular pattern. We are saying there is a different way of learning, which is to see comprehensively, wholly, holistically the whole movement of knowledge. Knowledge is necessary; otherwise you couldn't live, but the very understanding of its limitation is to have insight into its whole movement. We have taken knowledge as natural, and live with knowledge, and go on functioning with knowledge for the rest of our life, but we have never asked what knowledge itself is, and what its relationship is to freedom, what its relationship is to what is actually happening. We have taken all this for granted. That's part of our education and conditioning.'' (J. Krishnamurti, 1979)

And so, knowledge and skills foster one kind of learning, whereas competence and capacity foster another. These are usually identified as normal and breakthrough learning.

James Botkin and his colleagues discuss the distinction between normal learning and breakthrough learning the following way:

Maintenance learning [or normal learning] is the acquisition of fixed outlooks, methods, and rules for dealing with known and recurring situations. It enhances our problem-solving ability for problems that are given. It is the type of learning designed to maintain an existing system or an established way of life. Maintenance learning is, and will continue to be, indispensable to the functioning and stability of every society. But for long-term survival, particularly in times of turbulence, change, or discontinuity, another type of learning is even more essential. it is the type of learning that can bring change, renewal, restructuring, and problem reformulation---and which we have called innovative learning. [in our words, breakthrough learning]

When people talk about normal learning, it usually implies small incremental changes in their mental models. Normal learning is what happens when we acquire more data to support the models and frameworks that we already have (though they may be mostly unconscious). No major insights result out of this kind of learning. That is why when we learn how to paint with oils instead of water colors, we don't view it as a major accomplishment. We are just developing new skills with new tools.

Breakthrough learning, however, refers to a major shift in perspective. A 'break' occurs in the context within which we view the world. The content might not change, but how you perceive that content, how you look at the world (your worldview), is altered in the process of breakthrough learning. This kind of learning drastically alters the sense of self, the feeling of competence, and unfolds new capacities that have been unmanifested before.

Essentially, normal learning is learning about something, somebody etc. In other words, normal learning is objective in nature. It can be broken down into small chunks and people can be trained or 'educated' through a normal learning process. The process does not differ between the student or the teacher and always assumes the same set of assumptions about everyone. It is excellent process for communicating the existing and well-understood body of knowledge, as in training somebody to use a piece of machinery to produce a certain number of widgets per hour. Most scientific procedures are developed around the normal learning processes.

Breakthrough learning, on the other hand, allows you to learn about yourself, alters your mental models, and changes your relationship to the world. For example, a teacher begin to pay attention to the learning styles of her students in the class room and communicates the same content in different ways (with more visual images or in a story form or by asking students to engage in an experiential exercise) that teacher might be surprised at the reception she gets. While this requires her to break out of her usual teaching plan and may take longer to communicate the same content than the normal way, the results could be dramatically different. Breakthrough learning deals more with subtle issues like your values, beliefs, attitudes, and ethics. There is nothing objective about this kind of learning and major discoveries and inventions have come about when people had 'aha' experiences in the most unexpected times and places. The discovery of the structure of Benzene by Kekule is an example of how a subjective experiences shattered an existing set of beliefs about how things work.

In the Indian Upanishads, these two types of learning lead to objective knowledge--knowledge about the world and things in the world--and subjective knowledge, or knowledge about the self. Ultimately, it all comes down to this separation or 'gap': the self and the world, either focusing on the learner or the content to be learned. Bridging this 'gap' requires both awareness of the world and letting go of one's perspective on it. Then the learner and 'the content to be learned' are connected through the process of learning. Thus, while education and training generally focus on the content to be learned, we need to focus on the process of learning and the learner.

Indeed, learning has both explicit and subtle dimensions. It has to do with learning about oneself as well as learning about the world. It involves three times: past (knowledge and skills), present (competence), and future (capacity). And because it combines normal and breakthrough learning, we say that development occurs and that learning unfolds in both wider and deeper dimensions.

Figure 2 : Two kinds of learning operate in orthogonal directions. Together they result in development.



A Framework for Learning

We have developed a framework for learning that helps one to understand how both normal and breakthrough learning occurs. Our framework shows that learning takes place in several phases: conditioning, unlearning, openness, manifestation, and coaching, after which we cycle back to the beginning and start all over again in a spiral fashion. Jean Piaget worked extensively on distinguishing stages of learning in a stage developmental process (Piaget, 1970). This is not quite what we are speaking of. Piaget focused on how we develop cognitive structures in interpreting our environment as we grow from child to adult. In contrast, the framework presented here applies to all ages, though certain phases may be more prevalent or important depending on a person's age, environment, and intention to learn at new levels. Piaget also presented a somewhat linear progression of the stages of learning, tying it to biological development. If this fusion were strictly true, it would be difficult to explain the occasions where adults have felt the child-like excitement of engaging in learning something we really want to know. In those moments we seem to learn at an accelerated pace, much like that of a child learning language and the manipulation of his environment in a very short period of time compare to the average adult. A 'learning cycle' better explains how this can occur.

Fig. 3. An integrated framework for Learning. We enter into the world with instinctive abilities to learn and get shaped by the environment. Once we complete the cycle of conditioning, unlearning, openness, manifestation and coaching, we develop more trustworthy instincts and begin the learning cycle all over again. Each time we complete it, we learn something different. Notice that reflection, unlearning, openness and action begin from within and show up outside in the environment.



Piaget once said in a lecture: ''Every time you teach a child something you keep him from reinventing it.'' From the time we are born we learn to live within boundaries and patterns. We are conditioned by our physical environment, by what our parents and others tell us, by events that impact us emotionally, and by the subtle social structures that surround us. Conditioning allows us to live together, to work together, and to find our way home after work. Most conditioning occurs through watching what other people do: their practices, rituals, and unconscious actions. Conditioning is like a reflex, with an automatic quality.

Thorndike (1913) performed extensive experiments in 'operative conditioning' on cats. By putting a cat in a box, rewarding it with food upon escaping and timing its escape over successive tries, Thorndike charted the progress whereby the cat learned to escape to access the food. At first the cat was slow, finding the escape by exploration and chance, but eventually it immediately and consistently found freedom and food. These experiments were the source of what we now call the learning (conditioning) curve. At first the results would seem positive for the cat, and indeed they are. After conditioning, the cat could access the food more quickly. But what if the food was placed behind a trap door, or worse yet, in another box the cat could access only with an act of creativity or great luck? Often the cat would stick to the old plan, sure that there was a reward waiting. How many times have we humans found ourselves repeating the same old patterns hoping for a better result?

Slowly and relentlessly we build a 'box' around ourselves. While we're inside the box, we're dependent on its windows to see outside. We also might think of the window pane as having a distortion effect, filtering the information that passes through it. The windows could be bright, or of stained glass, or difficult to see through. They might make the outside look distant or frightening, playful or complex. In extreme cases they might not let any light through at all.

It has been said that fish living in two parts of an aquarium separated by a glass partition generally continue to stay on their original half even though the partition is removed. Adults quickly become comfortable inside their individual box and continue to live on 'autopilot'. We become unaware of the filter on the window and even the shape and size of the box. We learn to adapt to its constrictions. We therefore forget that there are boundaries; only if we tried to stretch ourselves would we notice they are there at all.



Conditioning is inevitable and at times even appropriate. It helps us to function more effectively in the environment that we live in. We develop our own perspectives and interpretations of the world as we interact more and more with the environment and in small ways, we also influence the environment around us by our actions, words and beliefs. In fact, Skinner believed that we should just focus on condition people with proper stimuli and reward people when they develop desired behavioral patterns(Skinner, 1958). But just as we cannot plant new crops without first uprooting the old roots and giving the new seeds a chance, we need to unlearn before we can learn anew. In other words, while normal learning is facilitated by conditioning approaches, no new learning or breakthroughs take place with this approach. Unlearning is the key. How then do we unlearn our patterns and develop new patterns? How do we escape the box?

There is an old fable about a frog in a pond. A new frog arrived from the ocean. He asked this visitor how big was the ocean. "The ocean is very large and the pond is so small compared to the ocean," the second frog responded. The frog in the pond could not imagine anything bigger than the pond it lived in and therefore it went away thinking that the second frog was the biggest liar it had ever met. Escaping our self-created box before there is an emergency, requires a definite intention. When we travel by plane, how many of us pay attention to the instructions the flight attendants give on the right ways to buckle up, and where to find oxygen masks and flotation devices? The ritual bores us. However, if the plane developed serious engine trouble in mid flight, everyone would suddenly pay very close attention indeed. Although such motivation could hardly be higher in survival terms, because of the stress of the situation some people would still miss many of the instructions given. Because there is no inherent pleasure in learning about the equipment itself, the mind still finds itself wandering.

What if we were to develop a conscious desire to explore possibilities outside our conditioned thinking? We might become aware of what lies outside the box, we would perhaps see and hear things we were previously oblivious of. We would gradually develop a creative tension between our desire to change and our resistance, which is a fear of the unknown; we could confront the old model, unlearn what was holding us back, and begin to open up enough to dissolve the old box, and create anew. When this occurs, it is a moment is one of breakthrough and great awareness. For a while there is reduced attachment to the past and reduced anxiety about the future. Such transformations lead to dramatic increases in openness and create a space, a gap between current reality and the future vision. This is the foundation for 'meta cognition.' Thinking about one's thinking creates the foundation for 'learning to learn.'(Bateson, 1972)



One has to become more open in order to see new realities. This means living not in the certainties of the past, but in the unknowing of the 'now'. This state of being in the 'now' is called the state of mindfulness in Buddhist tradition (Ellen J. Langer, 1989), (Sharon Salzberg, 1997), (Goleman, 1997) . It is a magical place where time loses its meaning. When great athletes, dancers and players talk about 'being in the zone,' or being in 'flow' (Csikszentmihalyi 1990), (Csikszentmihalyi 1997) this is the gap that they refer to. From all my interviews with Nobel laureates and top athletes, I discovered that this is the place of high creativity and low attachment. This state is described as a state in which 'I was the player and I was also an observer unattached to my own play.' This state allows for new associations and new connections to be made in our brain and we come away changed even if the experience was brief.

A friend of mine who is a heart surgeon, says that, ''Before an operation I have to sit quietly for at least 10 or 15 minutes.'' I asked him why does he do that? Is it nerves? ''No,'' he said, ''I have done hundreds of these operations, but I've found out I than I can go into autopilot mode. If I go into the space that 'I know,' I may miss the obvious clues which are, for this particular patient, very different. I need to clear myself before I operate; to remember that this person is an entirely separate and individual human being. I need to treat him or her as if they are unique, because they are. And if I treat the surgery like an entirely mechanistic procedure, their life or death is in my hands, so I need to have respect for what I am doing every single time consciously. And that place of clarity is what gives me a certain, a certain 'not knowing' of how that operation will turn out.'' And I asked him, ''Is it a sort of meditation?'' He said, ''Well, you could call it a meditation. I am an atheist. I don't necessarily pray to any god, but at the same time I do believe in some kind of making myself open. So whatever is bothering me, the wife, or the kids or the car, or the head of the hospital... I need to let it go. I need to be in a place of total openness in such a way that I become just an instrument . All the answers are in the patient's body. I need to pay attention to what clues the body is providing to diagnose what needs to be done. And then the body needs to guide my hand. I can't guide the body.''


Manifestation or Implementation

During the openness stage of learning, re-framing and transformation take place. We come away feeling stretched, and we often find a little more peace, meaning and control in our lives in a strange and unexplainable way. We have expanded our capabilities and a shift has taken place that could allow us to acquire skills and competencies at a much faster pace if we so choose. While we have not closed the gap, we are like children, open to possibilities again. Through play, fun, trial and error, we could attempt to implement or truly manifest our 'vision' or experience of the previous stage in creative and unique ways. In some respects, we learn in this stage by doing.

Children have the capability to learn innovatively; they are creative by nature. But that does not mean they can develop new skills overnight. How do they access their innate learning capabilities? By doing something: by practice, by implementation, experimentation, and yet more practice. This is the crucial skill-acquiring aspect of learning. We spend most of our learning time here, so it is referred to as 'normal' or objective learning. But when we are trying to manifest a new idea, generate something that has not been created before, this normal learning is inspired by a vision or clarity and allows for breakthrough discoveries. Normal or not, if we fail to act on our thoughts, all the previous steps are redundant, abstract and sterile, the knowledge being acquired by mere memorization and therefore subject to rapid evaporation. Dewey said that, "information severed from thoughtful action is dead, a mind crushing load." Instead, we can choose to crystallize them before it is too lateÉ

The process of learning is still not complete; there is one more stage. Even after manifestation, there may not yet be clear conceptual understanding of the process that took place. Until this is fully understood, there remain holes in our knowledge.



To better understand the process of learning, the learner has to take on a role of a coach or mentor to assist another learner. During that process of teaching, the teacher learns at a deeper level. It is only by attempting to explain something that we sometimes realize that we do not fully understand it ourselves. We may have accepted much of the material at face value, but when a student asks us ''Why is that?'', we have no alternative but to think it afresh. The act of teaching is therefore unique in its ability to clarify thought and be a learning accelerator. It is the beginning of a new learning cycle and an essential ingredient on the path to mastery. Reuven Feuerstein of Israel (a student of Piaget) has spent a better part of his life working with kids with down syndrome and his work is about 'cognitive modifiability' and coaching. He believes that our brains are 'plastic' and with proper 'mediation' we can change the responses of the child even though the stimulus remains the same. His theories on 'mediated learning experiences' and 'learning potential' are becoming more and more known to educators outside of Israel and his approach to working with down-syndrome kids is an example of transformational coaching method (Feuerstein, 1980).

Finally, learning process is cyclical or more accurately spiral in nature. The first time we attempt to learn something, we master the content. When we get back to it the second time with more awareness and interest, we begin to understand the process. The third time, if we do return, the context in which the learning process unfolds begins to become clear and the fourth time, we begin to tap into how people get interested in anything. In other words, we can understand intrinsic motivation much better the fourth time!



Designing a Learning Environment

How then can we create a learning environment in which knowledge, skills, competency and capacity are all developed? The key is the creation of the organization that learns. This is because learning for the individual is not separate from the contexts of family, group or team, organization, and community. In other words, all learning occurs within a culture or environment.

Learning shows up as 'growth' in four dimensions in people: Physical, emotional, intellectual and creative/generative. One can become a great player or swimmer. Emotional learning shows up in abilities to nurture in relationships. Intellectual growth is more easily understood while creative or generative learning results in inventions, and innovations. In a general sense, an organization that learns pays attention to creating environment that supports physical well being (and development), provides emotional support (affects the sense of belonging and psychological health), challenges and stretches intellect and facilitates creation of new knowledge through products, processes and services. The key to such learning is emotional development and hence the leader's attention has to be to find a way to open the hearts of people so that they co-create the organization that support the development in other dimensions. Let us look at the steps to creating such environment.


Creating a Foundation

The first step is what I call 'creating a foundation'. It involves creating boundary conditions and ground rules for designing and differentiating this organization from others. In other words, the purpose of the rules is to clarify the game that we are choosing to play. The ground rules shouldn't be limiting to people, their purpose is to create a consistent playing field with room to maneuver, where there is a common understanding for working together. In a mundane sense, restructuring a learning environment like developing operand conditioning a la Skinner. More people are involved in creating such rules, the better the foundation and more interested people are in playing the game.

Ground rules should not be broken. Not because of authority but because you chose to create them in the first place. If you do not follow the rules you set forth, nobody will follow them either. If you do not like the ground rules, you work with the system to change them. If such change is not in the best interest of the organization, you can choose to stay in the system and follow the ground rules or to get out of the organization and find another where a different set of ground rules are present. If, for example, your organization is a business where drugs are forbidden, if any drugs, are found on the premises or if the person is found to be on drugs, the responsible party will no longer be part of the system. There cannot be exceptions to ground rules at the foundation level. True leadership is about modeling the behavior, 'walking the talk' that you wish others to follow. By making the ground rules minimal and clear cut and by following them religiously, you create a safe space for other people to play with you and build with you. In that respect, the first step is all about leadership.

This is not an issue of morality, but more one of conditioning and habit formation. At the body level, the reptilian brain does not operate logically. It does not function by emotions either. It operates in black and white. It operates through fight or flight survival responses and there is no higher level intelligence at this level. It means that you cannot ignore something that you have helped to create. If you do, the survival of the system is threatened.

Once we all agree to work with the minimum required and to always follow the rules, we have a game to play. The role of the leaders is to continually monitor the playground and make sure that the game is getting played. Authority would not work here. Only once all parties have agreed with and committed to all the rules can the game go on to the next level.

An excellent example of creating a solid foundation in the corporate world is the Boeing 777 Program Reviews conducted by Alan Mullaly, VP and General Manager of the 777 program (since I met Mullaly, he moved on to become the president of a major division in Boeing). I attended one of the project review meetings that Mullaly managed and was quite surprised at what happened there. Their ground rules provide not only a clarity of where they stand and how to proceed on a project, but they also take into account the emotional, cognitive and generative aspects of learning together. Here are their purpose and ground rules:

Purpose/Review Together:

  • Where We Are On Our Plan
  • Where We Need Special Attention to Accomplish Our Plan

Principles and Practices:

  • Use Facts and Data
  • Listen to Each Other
  • No Secrets
  • Help Each Other, Include Everyone
  • Whining is OK Occasionally
  • Enjoy Each Other And The Journey
  • Propose a Plan, Find A Way
  • Emotional Resilience

The aspect of physical or habitual learning is reflected in the consistency of their 'Project Review' meetings, which were always scheduled on Wednesday mornings from 8 - 11 a.m. Alan Mullaly starts the meeting exactly at 8 am with a big picture review. He welcomes guests one by one, acknowledging their contribution (if any). He then reviews principles and practices. As you probably noticed in the ground rules above, there is opportunity for people to complain. Once you complain, it is also your responsibility to propose a plan and find a way that would work for everyone. Another key measurement they use in their Project Review meetings is based on a traffic light metaphor: All items are marked in green on the 'moving on' schedule. Items listed in yellow require special attention. Red listings are warning signals requiring everyone to help each other. The emphasis here is that they are all in it together.

The meeting I attended was very nicely organized with no blaming and no complaints. Customers, suppliers and visitors from other parts of the Boeing company who go to these Project Review meetings are impressed at how much information gets communicated, how issues get resolved, and how each of the participants, including guests, gets a chance to contribute, give feedback, and become part of the larger project. Ownership, responsibility and accountability all emerge out of the clear ground rules. A participatory field in which you have choice and freedom to do what works for you and the team is also present. Such is the product of a strong foundation.


Establishing a New Culture

Once the required ground rules are clear and in practice, it is very important to design a caring and nurturing environment. This can involve the physical environment as well as the emotional environment as created by acting consistently with the values designed into the ground rules. Culture is what empowers or dis-empowers people. In essence, this section is about empowerment ---creating, sharing, and nurturing. A nurturing emotional environment is created through principles and practices that reflect values like care, empathy, trust, listening, sharing, risk-taking and learning from mistakes. While the game rules and boundary conditions define the play ground, these principles make the game interesting, fair, and fun to play. In relation to the learning dimensions, a nurturing environment leads to emotional engagement. The limbic system has a range of emotions that gets engaged in such an environment.

When good ground rules based on the several dimensions of learning are present, and their implementation has created a safe and enjoyable learning environment, a 'learning culture' forms that is roughly analogous to what we called the phase of 'conditioning' in the cycle of learning. The culture reflects the design of the ground rules and environment, so if one of the dimensions of learning was not included in the design, the culture that arises will not stand on a strong base for learning.

The environment in the 777 program seems to be well designed. When I spoke with Alan Mullaly, he made it clear that during his meetings people tell the truth and do not hide their mistakes from others. This is because Mullaly himself is willing to show his vulnerability in front of others, to tell the truth, and to practice the values he preaches. His deputies have a good role model.

I also noticed that Mullaly only talked about changing behavior through rewards, never through punishment. He implicitly believes in the goodness of human beings. As skill levels are not in question, he is willing to support them in doing what is good for them. In return, his deputies seem to also do what is good for the whole 777 team. New people on the team might not want to practice teamwork and may initially feel uncomfortable and exposed in the ''working together'' culture of 777. This is likely to change as they begin to become conditioned to the culture of telling the truth and taking responsibility. Culture is tacit in nature and gets propagated through practice. Children do not have any problem in putting on their seat belts in the car or wearing helmets while riding their bicycles. Why? They learned those habits as part of growing up. We adults, on the other hand, were not brought up during a time when seat belts and bike helmets were an every-day issue. As a result, we kick and scream about our own safety, getting mixed up with other issues like personal freedom and choice.


Individual Transformation and Organizational Transformation

The third step in creating conditions conducive to learning is to focus on individual transformation. While clear boundary conditions and an empowered environment are extremely important, individual transformation is the key to organizational transformation. This means cultivating the context for individual creativity, therefore allowing innovation to occur.

The more firmly we establish the first two steps, the more possibilities emerge in this third step. The more people know and value the structure, the more they expand to fill it. The more nurturing and empowering the culture is, the more people want to go beyond it. This going beyond, breaking the mold does not occur collectively at first. It begins with an individual transformation.

We already know that creativity has something to do with breaking the mold, stretching the limits, challenging the conventional wisdom; it's something we call 'thinking outside of the box'. This involves the stages of 'unlearning' and 'openness' described earlier. For most of us this is a courageous act. It involves the risk of 'bridging the gap' between uncertainty and untested creation. In order for us to more easily take risks as individuals we need the support from our environment.

This involves both the group's leader and the group itself. In order to get in touch with their inner genius, leaders sometimes require personalized coaching and to have their ways of thinking and nurturing stretched. This can be done through forcing them to expand their cognitive maps and by appreciating and acknowledging who they are to us. Leaders generally think of themselves in a rigid, limited, and mostly distorted way. It is not until we, the other group members, have bridged the gap between who the individual leaders think they are and who they are to us that they can reach their full potential. The more genuine and authentic we are in noticing them and identifying their unique contributions and characteristics, the better they will lead and teach us.

A key principle and practice for creating an environment conducive to bridging the gap between the individual and the group is that of acknowledgment and appreciation. In each Boeing 777 project review meeting, not only are current team members present, but guests, old team members, and customers are there as well. Mullaly greets each and every one of them by their first name, acknowledges their contribution to the project, and makes it obvious that he appreciates their visit. He asks them individually for their feedback on the meeting and the project. Many individual letters get read aloud by him as well as put on the overhead-projector and read by the whole team. It was fun for me to watch the faces of people who were personally acknowledged. It was as if they grew an inch instantly. Such instances of euphoria are the time for transformation. Once people see how they are perceived and appreciated by others, they begin to make changes to themselves accordingly. They attempt to bridge that gap between who they think they are and who others think they are. Their inner genius begins to emerge.

Authenticity is extraordinarily important in acknowledgment and appreciation. If the person thinks that we are faking such things, there could be a significant loss of trust and respect not only for us, but also for any other person attempting to acknowledge or appreciate. Faking is dangerous. Angeles Arrien, a cross cultural anthropologist, once said that each person is a leader, and effective leaders are the ones who know how to acknowledge others and what she says is:

People in the world over consistently acknowledge each other in four ways: We acknowledge each other's skills; each other's character qualities; each other's appearance; and the impact we make on each other. Wherever we receive the least acknowledgment is where we may carry a belief of inadequacy or low self-esteem (Arrien, 1993)

The power of acknowledgment is such that it can cause a change to occur in the other person. If that person is over acknowledged in one area or merely desperate for any acknowledgment at all in order to create a positive self-image, upon hearing such comments they can start believing them in a fundamental way. They can realign their self perception. Because of this, they start to develop in that area; it becomes self-fulfilling.

In today's lean and mean organizations, every employee needs to be an agent of change. This mastery of change, which brings forth brilliant customer service, new product development, and innovation comes through this personal transformation step more than it does through mere ground rules or a supportive environment. But the first two steps are the foundation upon which this third step is built. Without them, personal transformation is not sustainable.


Designing a New Game

The fourth step in preparing a learning environment is not just to play a game but to design a new game, a game which is much bigger than that with which we started. If we have done well with the first three steps, we should have a large number of leaders who are good in setting clear boundary conditions, and know how to establish a powerful learning environment. In addition, these leaders are themselves personally transformed and are constantly coaching others to transform themselves.

It is like building a community of leaders, truly liberating leadership. This is the place where generative learning and new innovations of a high order take place as people are constantly engaged with creating new knowledge. This is not about competing with an external customer or being perfect. It is about truly pushing the boundaries of human thinking and creativity. It is about co-creativity, teamwork and collective generative learning. It is also about contribution and integration of leadership, empowerment, and creativity in one and the same person and every person in the group. It is about synergy and generation of new knowledge.

This fourth step is about learning to learn and is what brings the focus back onto the first step. Once we experience paradigm shifts and breakthroughs that lie hidden in the fourth step, setting new ground rules is a natural consequence for the bigger and new game that we design!

In essence, the fourth step is about integration. It is about action--not just any kind of action, but action without attachment to results. It is not about getting something for you; it's about giving something to the larger community. That is the context in which '1' and '1' could combine to produce '11.' As you notice, '11' does not come from any addition, subtraction, division, or multiplication from either '1.' This is what happens within an organization that learns. Communication and learning at all levels--(head (cognitive), heart (emotional), gut (physical)--arises under such circumstances. In such a place there is choice and freedom for individuals and organizations to create, lead, and empower each other while doing something larger than the sum of their individual capabilities and capacities. That is the meaning of an organization that learns.

Fig. 4. Organizations learn just like human beings--in cycles. They have to have a body which happens to be the organizational framework (skeleton) and the culture is the blood that flows through the body. Individual transformation ignites the creativity and innovation and generation of new knowledge gives birth to new organizations (organisms). Then the cycles begins all over again!



As we have seen, the learning process is far from simple. Realizing that there are several stages and four different yet integral dimensions involved in each learning cycle, and that steps must be taken in order for all four dimensions to be present, makes us realize how much we can do to improve not only our learning, but the learning that occurs all around us. From within the home, to our children's' schools, to our businesses, the learning process is constantly taking place in ever widening cycles of creation and mastery. In the end, a leader's new role in the knowledge age is to encourage people to think from their heads (to unleash their creativity), feel from their hearts (to create a culture of empowerment to nurture themselves and people around them), work with their body (provide leadership by doing, and practicing what they preach), and integrate their spirit (by focusing on building capacity and appreciative approach to inspire others) in their day-to-day work. This integral, cyclical approach has the potential to create the intellectual property of the organization, tap into the intrinsic motivation of the employees, allow a sense of fulfillment in work, and truly develop an organizational spirit that works to a competitive advantage.


References and Notes

  • Davis, S. and J. Botkin 1995. The Monster Under the Bed, New York: Touchstone Books.
  • Bennis, W. and B. Nanus. 1985. ''Strategy IV: Deployment of Self,'' Leaders:
  • Strategies for Taking Charge, New York: Harper & Row, pp 187-214.
  • Aubrey, R.1996 May The Metizo Newsletter, Paris: Robert Aubrey.
  • Michael, D.N. 1982. ''Planning---And Learning from It,'' in Making It Happen. Ed.
  • John M. Richardson, Jr., Washington, D.C.: U.S. Association for the Club of Rome, pp 175-80.
  • Phillips, D.C. and J.F. Soltis 1985. Perspectives on Learning, New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Hart, L.A. 1983.Human Brain and Human Learning New Rochelle, NY: Brain Age Publishers.
  • Ackerman, P. L., R. J. Sternberg, and R. Glasser, Ed. 1989. Learning and Individual Differences: Advances in Theory and Research,. New York: W. H. Freeman and Company.
  • Krishnamurti, J. 1979. from a talk at Krishnamurti Foundation, Ojai, CA on 15 April.
  • Botkin, J. W., E. Mahdi, and M. Mircea, 1979. No Limits to Learning NY: Pergamon, Page 10.
  • Mundaka Upanishad I, (1), 4.
  • To learn more about Piaget's approach to learning and development, please read J. Piaget, 1970. ''Piaget's Theory,'' in Carmichael's Manual of Child Psychology Ed., P. Mussen, New York: John Wiley.
  • Thorndike, E. L. 1913. Educational Psychology: The Psychology of Learning, New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Skinner, B.F. 1958. Science and Human Behavior, New York: Macmillan.
  • Unlearning is not necessarily a new or Eastern concept. While it has extensively been referred to in Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism, it has also been addressed by people like Gregory Bateson, (1972), Warren Bennis (Bennis and Nanus 1985).
  • Bateson, Gregory 1972. ''The Logical Catagories of Learning and Communication'', in Steps to An Ecology of Mind, New York: Ballantine Books, pp 279-308.
  • Langer, Ellen J. 1989. Mindfulness, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
  • Salzberg, Sharon 1997. A Heart As Wide As the World : Living With Mindfulness, Wisdom, and Compassion, Boston: Shambhala Pubns.
  • Goleman, Daniel. Ed 1997. Healing Emotions : Conversations With the Dalai Lama on Mindfulness, Emotions, and Health, , Boston, Shambala Pubns.
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1990, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, New York: Harper & Row.
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1997, Finding Flow, New York: Basic Books.
  • Feuerstein, Reuven in collaboration with Ya'acov Rand, Mildred B. Hoffman and Ronald Miller, 1980. Instrumental Enrichment: An Intervention Program for Cognitive Modifiability, Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Company.
  • Arrien, Angeles. 1993. The Four-Fold Way: Walking the Paths of the Warrior, Teacher, Healer and Visionary, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.


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